“machines alone have realized that sleep is no longer permitted”
– W. G. Sebald –
I haven’t slept.
Sometimes, in a dream, it feels like “it occurs to me.”
Trying to create a lesson plan for graduate students in the College of Education, I want to tell them why internet research / database searching / source evaluation seems so complex. I take a hammer, a wrench, a tomahawk. I bring a plow, a harness, a sewing machine. I show a steam engine, a telegraph. I think about them.
Hold them. Turn them about. Consider what you can do with them (if you know how). Surmise what you can do with them (if you don’t know how). Lots of things.
Humans devise stuff in concord with their environment. Stones to stumble on, to throw, to hunt with, to pound. Sticks to slap, clack, burn, poke. Maybe carve. Maybe paint. Maybe write.
What we devise have certain rules, operations, constraints. Remember the first time you wielded a hammer? Learned to turn a doorknob? Fitted a screwdriver to screw?
There’s a learning curve. Adaptation. Practice. Change.
Try archery. A piano. Knit something.
Simple tools. Fire. Rock. Wood.
Mud. Sand. Clay.
So we figure out things that might be done with them. Things to do, make, say, or think. Certain things are more efficient. Certain ways. Certain hows.
We practice and experiment. Devise.
I am 45. Until I was in my teens, my fingers had not touched a lettered keyboard. In high school I had a class for typing (on manual typewriters). As a pianist I excelled. My homework depended on the legibility of my handwriting through graduate school. By 1993 there were computers in the “typing room.”
You don’t have to know how to write now.
I watch the pencil or pen move along lined paper. What do I have to know in order to do this? How can I make the marks turn out like this? Dexterity, control, care, effort.
Alphabetic literacy, knowledge, craft, semantics, semiotics, grammar and so forth…
Turn the hammer in your hand. Tighten the wrench. Use a pushpin. Take up a fork. Operate a knife with steak. Raise the glass.
“Tools,” perhaps, technologies – technics and techniques – with their own sets of rules for our cognizant bodies.
Pull out your phone. A swipe, some taps, a certain way of holding. Understanding icons, visual literacies, kinetic craft, operational knowledge. Know-how. Complex. Astounding. Dexterous. Intelligent. Think of all the things you need to know to work that small device.
And then adapt.
Diagram the innards of a personal computer, a Smartphone, a tablet, a scanner. Imagine the adaptation required to operate that machine.
Think networked information. Big Data. If all our images, texts, conversations, correspondences, budgets, ledgers, laws, entertainments, plans, designs, models, experiments, applications, programs, art…(and so on) are DIGITAL / digitized… then algorithm’d and interfaced, softwared and connected… NONE OF US KNOW WHAT IS THERE.
The machines to which we dump, turn-over, DEVISE, inform, enTRUST – the artifacts of our living – because it is too much – no ONE (person or institution) catalogs, lists, calculates, organizes, arranges, assigns – THE MACHINES MUST DO IT BECAUSE OF THE SCALE and PACE…
NOBODY KNOWS WHAT IS THERE
Stacked algorithms and protocols select relevancy and value; similarity and related; significance and import; primacy and rank. We operate. And barely. How do we guess the coding of its imputing? How do we wrangle the keywords? Information coming from anywhere at anytime into any port…what are the techniques, dexterity, knowledge, grammars, semantics, decoding, crafts – analytics?? – (at least as complex as the machine we diagrammed – times powers of 10 for all the machines involved!!) in order to locate our NEED; QUALITY; ESSENTIAL…?
In other words – we turn over. We devise these concords of things – and revise ourselves according to them.
You’re guess may be as good as mine. What is in there, where it is, and how to access it. We use a Smartphone for many more things (at once) than a hammer or pen – while we and it are being used by systems larger than any of us altogether.
Systems of devised systems – we have no hope of controlling. NONE of us. Nor all of us. We are entangled: mutually dependent – and subordinate. We DON’T KNOW. We DON’T KNOW. We don’t know. We’re IN the weather completely.
This is rough, when you also have a propensity, passion, or interest to know. Subordinating oneself to a system is hard with a developed desire for autonomy, freedom, liberty. As far as I know, at the mercy of was not a Sapient evolutionary goal. Yet here we are.
How shall we adapt to these devices?
How shall we then live?